After two and a half years, Nana and I are almost able to hold a simple conversation in Japanese. This came in handy during my parents' visit: we could order food, direct taxis, find train platforms, and read bus schedules with at least a modicum of confidence. These modest abilities were especially useful on a particular night in the middle of our trip, when we found ourselves at a business hotel near the Nagasaki airport, exhausted and in need of something to eat.
First, some background. The Nagasaki airport, as it turns out, is actually nowhere near Nagasaki. This appears to be common in Japan: many smaller domestic airports are meant to serve a whole prefecture, not just the prefecture's eponymous city. They're frequently located in the middle of the prefecture, which is more often than not also the middle of nowhere.
Nagasaki Airport is an hour's train ride away from Nagasaki city, in the town of Omura, "known" for its chickens, pearls, and bricks. To make matters worse, our hotel was in a particularly sleepy neighborhood, which threw a wrench into our dinner plans. We had planned on stumbling around until we found a sign, any sign, that said "ramen" or "udon" - standard procedure for obtaining sustenance in an unfamiliar Japanese town - but the area around our hotel was nothing but apartments and convenience stores as far as the eye could see.
Luckily, a quick iPhone search showed a "shokudo" behind the hotel, a couple blocks off the main road.
Now, "shokudo" is one of those words that covers such a wide range of phenomena as to be functionally useless. It's usually translated as "cafeteria." But it can also refer to a kind of cheap, homey restaurant with a catholic menu of Japanese stand-bys, or to more up-market eateries offering high-class down-home cooking. When I went to the lobby to ask about this particular shokudo, the younger and scruffier of the two men on duty was effusive in his praise, while the older and more genteel front desk manager had apparently never heard of the place. In any case, both of them seemed reasonably certain that the place should be open at least until eight.
I checked the clock on the wall. Seven-thirty. Time for decisive leadership. I rallied the troops and we ventured off into the night.
From the first step, though, things felt strange. We were clearly walking into a residential neighborhood, which in Japan after dark means there was no sign of life for blocks. The restaurant itself was similarly lifeless: we walked right past at least twice, thinking it was just another house. In fact, it pretty much was another house: a large first-floor great room with a closed-off kitchen in the corner and what seemed to be a set of apartments above. What's more, the place was deserted. The door was open and the lights were on in the kitchen, but half the dining area had already been plunged into darkness.
A more sensible traveller, in a more typical country, would have doubled back to the convenience store, picked up something unspeakable, and called it a night. But in Japan, lingering unease is less often a sign of impending disaster than a prelude to zany good times.
To make an already long story short: this would turn out to be the latter.
After taking our orders, the lone young woman on duty, no doubt puzzled at the sudden appearance of four gaijin in her restaurant only thirty minutes from closing, struck up a conversation, pleasantly surprised each time she found our Japanese was up to the task.
The conversation started out fairly normally. "We're from America." "Oh, no, we only speak a little Japanese." "Yes, we saw (insert local landmark here." "Yes, we can use chopsticks." "My parents are visiting - we live in Japan." "We teach at Fukuoka International School."
That's when things started to get strange.
OWNER: Fukuoka International School? In Momochi?
OWNER: Do you live nearby?
US: Yes, we live in Muromi, just across the river.
OWNER: My husband was born in Momochi! He grew up in Muromi!
US: Hontou desu ka?!? (That's Japanese for, roughly and much more coarsely, "No f'n way!" To give some context for our Pittsburgh readers, this is a bit like if we'd met someone who was born in Mt. Lebanon and grew up in Sunset Hills.)
OWNER: Yes. We met in Fukuoka, then moved down here when we got married. This is my hometown. Hold on, let me call him down so he can meet you.
Thus began the slow process by which this young woman summoned, one by one, every relative in walking distance to come meet the foreigners who had stumbled into her cafe. The husband, naturally, cut right to the chase:
HUSBAND: Do you know the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks?
US: Yes - but they lost today! (The Hawks, defending Japanese champs, had only hours before been eliminated from the playoffs.) Zannen desu ne! (That's a phrase every language seems to have but English - somewhere between "I'm sorry" and "That sucks.") My dad is a huge baseball fan. We really wanted him to see a game, but there wasn't one in Fukuoka.
HUSBAND: Hold on - I have some extra jerseys. A present for your parents to take back to America.
Somewhere around here the situation escalated quickly. Our food arrived - delicious, and we were ravenously hungry. And a cousin or brother in law - not sure about the words for either. Nana and I each fell into separate conversations, translating for Dan and Kath as we went. All around, a noisy, cheerful hospitality.
Then, as we started to eat, a sleepy toddler appeared from the kitchen, obviously just roused from bed.
Of course, Dan's night had just been made. He immediately perked up with his own questions, which I rushed to translate - though it quickly became apparent that, like many young Japanese people, our hosts could understand more English than they could speak. We quickly covered all the most important bases: while the kid was too young to have started playing baseball, he already loved soccer, but alas he was not left-handed.
Around this time the scene started to settle down a bit. We tucked into our dinners, chatting idly, watching the scramble over, under, and around the empty tables. Occasionally, the kid stopped to stare at one of our beards, then refused our invitations to touch them.
Then, without warning, all glorious hell broke loose. The owner had at some point slipped upstairs again, returning with an infant of about eight months (I think). At which point my father - I'm sorry, Dan, but there's no other word for it - squealed with delight. Seriously: squealed.
Of course, before long, the cameras came out. Thus the four of us found ourselves immortalized in the lore of one young Omura family. I give you: Baby's first gaijin.